Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre often performs outdoors, but doing so means there’s weather to contend with. Sunday evening’s storms, for instance. So the company’s free concert at Atlanta Botanical Garden was postponed until Tuesday when, under cloudy skies, a large audience gathered in lawn chairs and blankets on the Great Lawn.
Three of the Terminus dancers – Rachel Van Buskirk, Christian Clark and John Welker — performed at the Garden in years past as members of Atlanta Ballet’s now-defunct summer ensemble Wabi Sabi, but this time, instead of dancing on the lawn, they were on a raised stage in front of the orchid house.
The program, titled American Voices, comprised the company premiere of James Kudelka’s The Man in Black and Heath Gill’s Confronting Genius. Both featured more gesture than virtuoso dancing, although plenty of timing and technique was required for the lifts and group work in The Man in Black, all performed flawlessly.
It might seem odd to compare a dance performed in cowboy boots and set to six gravelly Johnny Cash covers with George Balanchine’s choreography, but The Man in Black brought the ballet genius to mind. The four dancers stayed connected almost the entire time, holding hands while weaving around one another or linked in elongated lines – both classic Balanchine moves — or placing a hand on a shoulder or a cheek on a chest.
But this is no elegant, stripped down abstract work. It’s a gritty chunk of American country with its heart on its sleeve. It’s about loving and losing, pain, heartache and defiance. Gestures such as both hands in front of the face, fingers splayed, for the lyric “damn your eyes,” or a hunched over pose as if in deep sorrow, or arms flung out to the side with the energy of a shout, all mirrored the power of Cash’s voice in covers such as Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” and Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.” Kudelka’s movement vocabulary cleverly provides a humorous counterpoint to the rawness of the lyrics.
Welker, Clark and guest artist Jacob Bush wore black jeans and denim or plaid shirts, Van Buskirk flaunted a saucy brown skirt and top. Each dancer had a chance to be the hero or heroine of a song — Van Buskirk as the killer outlaw in the traditional folk song “Sam Hall,” for instance — while the other three became a kind of Greek chorus.
Slow and simple walks in the first section gave way to bouncier, syncopated walks in the second, bringing to mind country and western dance styles. And no matter the searingly honest topic — new love, regret, broken promises — the walking motif was a through line, like a heartbeat.
The work looked much stronger in this setting than when Atlanta Ballet performed it at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre in 2012. (Clark was in the cast then too.) It was well suited to the intimacy of the Garden and the casual outdoor atmosphere.
Second on the program was Confronting Genius, created by former Terminus dancer Heath Gill. Writer Elizabeth Gilbert’s musings on creativity — narrated here by Terminus dancer Jackie Nash — dominated the soundscore.
Gill has proven to be a talented choreographer, with works such as Lore and sections of Roam. Confronting Genius is an earlier work, not quite so accomplished.
As with The Man in Black, mime and gesture predominated but were less effective here. Performed Sunday by Terminus proteges Anna Owen and Katelyn Sager, the work’s physical humor is designed to mirror the irony and humor of Gilbert’s words but the choreography looks too literal, almost trite.
When Gilbert talked about galloping horses, the dancers galloped. When she talked about being afraid, they looked afraid. And so it went, rendering the movement far less compelling than the words. A stool with a rotating seat was a good prop – the dancers sat on it, stood on it, ruminated on it, twirled on it. They executed the oddly placed pirouettes and fouette turns with ease. But as The Man in Black choreography demonstrated so well, humor in ballet needs to be taken seriously in order to feel authentic.
Still, American Voices was a good program for audience members who were new to Terminus, perhaps new to ballet. And it re-established Terminus’ strengths: strong technique and highly professional production values.
A big downside was the height of the stage. The dancers’ feet were hidden behind a large bank of footlights and when, in both works, dancers laid down on the floor they were invisible. It was a definite distraction, but it was hard to feel too grumpy about it when, after darkness fell, the stage glowed magenta and gold, the frogs ribbited in the pond nearby and a bright star emerged silently above the orchid house roof.
Gillian Anne Renault has been an ArtsATL contributor since 2012 and Senior Editor for Art+Design and Dance since 2021. She has covered dance for the Los Angeles Daily News, Herald Examiner and Ballet News, and on radio stations such as KCRW, the NPR affiliate in Santa Monica, California. Many years ago, she was awarded an NEA Fellowship to attend American Dance Festival’s Dance Criticism program.